Do I have a good shot at CalTech/MIT's graduate program for physics?

  • #1
westisabsurd
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Hey y'all, Physics major from a UC here. I wanted to see if I could get some brutally honest insight on my chances of admission to the Physics graduate program to schools like Caltech/MIT/Stanford/UChicago to anyone who may be able to provide it.

[Current Stats]

I'm a second year Physics major. I currently have NO research experience, BUT, I got into an REU at a T10 Physics Research Institution for this Summer. Seeing my current trajectory, I should have around a 3.85 overall GPA by the time I apply. I plan on doing research immediately after my internship ends back at my home school for the two months before school begins again, and for the rest of the regular school year. I believe my chances at getting another solid research internship the following Summer are quite good too (hopefully at Caltech!), and plan on doing research immediately after that as well before the start of my 4th year. I also plan on taking the Physics GRE. Now, I know a lot of people might ask, "Why the hell did you wait so long to do research?". My background section will clear that up.

[Background]

I come from a very poor hispanic immigrant family of farmworkers, was a druggy kid, barely graduated high school, and was about to join the military. I somehow got into a UC for physics despite almost flunking out of Algebra 2 my Senior year of high school (yes, I was in in Algebra 2 my Senior year, and I passed with a C- at that). Took it as a cosmic sign that there was more in store for me, so I took the chance at trying to succeed in Physics. Began in college algebra (lowest class you can be placed in for math), ended up discovering an aptitude for math and science - made it to Vector Calculus in just one year (learned Calc. 1 & 2 in one Summer). Took my first physics courses, been getting straight A's on all of them, and I'm about to start my upper-division classes. At this point, I have caught up to all my peers who came from better educated/advantaged backgrounds, I have a solid GPA, and I am set for a 4 year graduation. The cherry on top is my prestigious REU internship. I don't know how I did, but I did it, and I am absolutely ecstatic and grateful for the opportunities that have led me to this point.

Unfortunately, due to these early setbacks, I didn't really have the capacity to do research my first year, or even my second year, as that's when I was learning Physics for the first time. I'm effectively in the position of someone transferring from a community college going to a 4 year, as I couldn't take advantage of those first two years catching up. I'm a bit worried that this might detract from how competitive of an applicant I might be for schools like Caltech, or MIT, no matter how much distance I've traveled in the last few years. Should I be worried?
 
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  • #2
First, those schools have very different programs. Picking a graduate school is more about "fit" than prestige. The big name school may not even do the kind of research you are interested in. Chasing prestige is a bad strategy. You can't each prestige.

Second, some schools are just not going to take you no matter how well you do. They may simply not have any openings in your subfield. Apply broadly.

Finally, you job this year is to get the most out of your college experience as you can. Focus on that.

Good luck!
 
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  • #3
Vanadium 50 said:
First, those schools have very different programs. Picking a graduate school is more about "fit" than prestige. The big name school may not even do the kind of research you are interested in. Chasing prestige is a bad strategy. You can't each prestige.

Second, some schools are just not going to take you no matter how well you do. They may simply not have any openings in your subfield. Apply broadly.

Finally, you job this year is to get the most out of your college experience as you can. Focus on that.

Good luck!
Gotcha gotcha. Could you elaborate on "fit"? I keep hearing this term used, and I get the point they are trying to get across, but what constitutes fit? What factors should I pay attention to to evaluate if a program is a good "fit" for me? Thank you.
 
  • #4
westisabsurd said:
Could you elaborate on "fit"?
I see you aren't going to take my advice to focus on where you are now. <sigh>

This is something you absolutely should not be worrying about now. You have no idea what you want to be doing for your PhD (even if you think you do), and little-to-no idea of the sort of environment you will do best in at the PhD level.

Stop fretting about grad school. It is unhelpful and probably unhealthy. Focus on what you need to be doing now.
 
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  • #5
Keep up the good work and return at your senior year's beginning. You will show us if you are on the trajectory you had forecast and presumably, you will have narrowed your area of interest.
 
  • #6
OP: You've received good advice from V50 and gleem. How well you will be positioned towards the end of your first semester senior year, when grad school applications are due, remains to be seen. Right now, all you have are optimistic extrapolations of what your GPA will be, what your PGRE score will be, and what your research record will be. The only things that will matter are what they actually are at the time of application. And, as others have pointed out, you'll be better positioned to define a list of candidate grad schools based on what your research interests are at that time, not based on your current vision of prestige.
 
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  • #7
westisabsurd said:
Could you elaborate on "fit"? I keep hearing this term used, and I get the point they are trying to get across, but what constitutes fit?
First kudos to you for overcoming such a challenging background and for having the type of drive and perseverance that was necessary to get you to where you are now. You should be very proud of your accomplishments. Your plan for developing the type of competitive profile required to get admitted to Physics graduate programs also appears solid. Provided you can follow through with it you should be well poised for when you're ready to apply.

As to fit, baring any personal constraints as to where you apply (e.g. geography), it should be the number 1 consideration you use for shortlisting programs to apply to. It can be the make or break between getting an admissions offer and a rejection. What it generally means is that your preparatory background and research interests align with research that's being conducted in the program you're applying to. Ideally when seeking out programs to apply to you would start by identifying researchers whose research focus aligns with your interests and then finding out which programs they're affiliated with, not the other way round. You then would ideally ascertain that they are actually in a position to be accepting new students in the cycle in which you are applying. A large part of your application package will be your statement of purpose (SOP) where you need to convince (most often) an admissions committee that you would be a strong addition to their program. Frequently that comes down to matching with available faculty. You could have a stellar profile but if there's no one available to supervise you, either due to research focus or lack of funding, you could be very easily passed over for a different applicant who may be a better fit, even if their profile is not as strong. Also ideally any program you apply to would have multiple faculty who could potentially be your research supervisor. Attending a program where there is only 1 faculty member who would be able to supervise you leaves you open to potential issues should the unforeseen occur and they not be able to continue to do so.

Now given that the programs you've listed are of a fair size and highly ranked it may be likely that there are researchers in those departments working in the subfield you will ultimately be interested in pursuing for your thesis, but that's by no means a given. You should put aside thoughts of "prestige" as being the primary criteria when choosing target programs. If you find that the top ranked programs do have faculty that match with your research interests and you have a competitive enough profile, by all means apply, but make sure that you are applying widely and not just to the most highly ranked and selective programs.
 
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